The Saif House

Saifedean Ammous' occasional blog

The Luddites are back

Posted by saifedean on November 7, 2011

I was disappointed to read today an article by Martin Ford arguing that technological advancement will destroy the jobs of workers, and that as a result the world is headed towards a jobless economy. This is pure nonsense.

Such nonsense isn’t new, of course. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, many people with a limited understanding of economics have made the same mistake. These Luddites have always fought technological advancement thinking it would destroy jobs and ruin society. The automated loon, they warned, was going to destroy the livelihood of the British textile worker. Mechanized farming was supposedly going to starve farmers. The steam engine was going to make redundant large chunks of the labor force. Indeed, much of Karl Marx’s confused economic theories are based on just this fallacy, positing that as capitalists grow richer, they can afford to replace more workers with machines, leaving behind large numbers of disgruntled proletariat that must then unite and revolt to… I don’t know, go back and work disgusting menial jobs, I guess.

Yet somehow the average Brit today is far better off than they were before those machines came about. British workers earn more, work less and work in much better conditions than two centuries ago. Unemployment in Britain is still very low (in spite of its increase after the recent depression.) Had the Luddites and Marxists been right, one would imagine that two centuries of technological progress would have left absolutely nobody with a job today.

The problem with this Luddite Fallacy is simple: technological advancement increases the productivity of labor and therefore makes labor more valuable. As a result, workers earn more. Technological advancement allows workers to produce more output for every hour they work. A farmer using a tractor can produce several times as much food as a farmer using a donkey. We live in a world of scarcity: we could always use more food, more clothes, more stuff. The only real constraint on our production of stuff is how much labor hours we have to devote to it. The more productive our labor, the more production we have. The more production we have, the more labor earns. Technological advancement does not take away the jobs of workers, it allows workers to do more productive jobs. We will never run out of jobs, because we could always use more humans making more scarce products to meet other humans’ never-ending wants.

To Luddites like Martin Ford, the invention of the wheel would have appeared an unmitigated disaster–just think of all the lost jobs in the carrying-painfully-heavy-stuff industry! But in reality, it was a great boon for humanity, as it freed humans from carrying heavy loads and instead allowed them to focus on more productive things like making food, clothes, houses, and so on.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that humanity’s economic conditions continue to improve with technological advancement. This is not going to change any time soon. The more productive our technology, the better off we are. If humanity were to listen to Luddites like Martin Ford and fight technological advancement, none of us would have any time to do any of the immensely productive things we do in today’s modern society. We would be too busy engaged in very primitive tasks like carrying heavy loads for us to do anything else.

We should not worry too much from people like Mr. Ford. The Luddites of the early 19th century did succeed in destroying many machines and some factories, but these victories against human advance were short-lived. Their movement died and their ideas became the butt of jokes, while technological advancement continued to make life better for everyone. While Luddites like Martin Ford may influence some people with their deceptively appealing ideas, they are utterly powerless to stop the ingenuity of billions of human beings from making life better for all of us. Or so I hope.

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One Response to “The Luddites are back”

  1. Hi, just watched the Feb 2nd edition of the Keiser Report – thought you made a clear, easily understandable case for why the system in most countries is currently corporatist. I’ve never been libertarian but have found some recent ideas interesting, particularly as they seem the easiest way of breaking the corporatist cycle without major upheaval – simply let them fail through competition.

    Your ideas above are interesting but how do you equate unregulated growth in productivity and demand with a finite world? While people will always want more stuff if they can afford to buy it, we can’t necessarily continue producing stuff exponentially.

    I guess it’s this libertarian philosophy of complete unregulation of everything which I’m not yet sold on. I’m open to suggestions though, so how would unregulated growth, polluting, consumption of resources allow for a stable system to develop on a planet with 7 billion people? I’ve found the ideaswhich make the most sense to me are the more ‘marxist’ ones by people such as Zizek – we should in fact be aiming for zero growth and by extension sustainability. To be fair I don’t remember him proposing a stategy to achieve this but the principle is sound.

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